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MONDAY, 21 APR 2014
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Rai’s Syria visit stirs up controversy
Rai gives holy communion to a worshiper at the Maronite Cathedral of St. Anthony in Bab Tuma, a predominantly Christian quarter of Damascus.
Rai gives holy communion to a worshiper at the Maronite Cathedral of St. Anthony in Bab Tuma, a predominantly Christian quarter of Damascus.
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BEIRUT: Maronite Patriarch Beshara Rai said Sunday that “no so-called reforms, human rights or democracy” are “worth the blood of one innocent man,” stirring up further controversy during his historic attendance at the Damascus enthronement of a new Greek Orthodox patriarch.

As fighting raged in the nearby district of Jobar, John Yazigi took the name of John X and became the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East in a Mass at Damascus’ Holy Cross Church.

Rai is the first Maronite patriarch to visit Syria since the two countries gained independence seven decades ago. His visit drew the ire of some Lebanese opposition politicians, but he emphasized that it was “merely pastoral” and that he had gone to “meet the Christians, notably the 60,000 Maronites,” stressing that the church is “always against war and for dialogue.”

“Every person who is killed, every time blood is spilled, tears flow from the eyes of Christ. Human life is invaluable, and there are no so-called reforms, human rights or democracy that are worth the blood of one innocent man,” he said.

Rai told worshippers outside the church: “[I pray] that the consciences of local, regional and international leaders are inspired to put an immediate end to the war in dear Syria ... and bring peace through dialogue.”

The patriarch called Saturday for reforms in Syria, saying they are “necessary, but should not be imposed from the outside.”

Many of Syria’s Christians, who make up around 5 percent of the country’s population, have attempted to distance themselves from the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which has turned violent and left more than 60,000 dead according to a United Nations toll.

Fares Souaid, coordinator of March 14’s general secretariat, told a local television station that Rai had no urgent reason to attend the ceremony, given that Yazigi is expected to visit Lebanon next week, adding that the patriarch had forced the hand of Lebanon’s Maronites on the subject of Syria.

“Rai’s visit obligates the Maronite sect to support the Syrian president, and it gives off an image that the Syrian regime will use to present itself as close to the Syrian Christians,” Souaid said, adding that it places Syria’s Christians in direct confrontation with “the Islamists who are leading the uprising” against Assad.

He said that he hoped only Maronites would comment on the visit, but on Twitter called for “those who do not agree with the patriarch’s visit to Damascus to express their opinions openly.”

Saleh Mashnouq, a March 14 official and son of Future MP Nuhad Mashnouq, posted on his Facebook page that Rai was participating in “a demonic Mass in Damascus.” “Through this Mass in Damascus, Patriarch Rai has established his partnership with Satan, and anyone who thinks religious men who support criminality have immunity is not one of us,” he wrote.

Some members of the opposition were less critical of Rai’s trip. MP Butros Harb expressed concern Sunday that the Syrian regime would exploit Rai’s visit for its own benefit.

“I know that the visit is religious, but I fear the Syrian regime will give the trip a political dimension to spread rumors that the Maronite Patriarchate is supporting one Syrian side at the expense of the other, and ultimately engage the church in the Syrian conflict,” Harb told a local radio station.

Future MP Nidal Tohme told visitors to his Akkar residence Sunday that the issue should not be given too much weight. “There are Christians in Syria and it is normal that the patriarch would check on how they are doing, especially in such critical circumstances. This has nothing to do with politics,” he said.

Over the weekend, Bishop Samir Mazloum also said there was no political dimension to Rai’s visit and that the patriarch would not meet any Syrian officials during his stay.

President Michel Sleiman also said the trip should not be politicized, adding that he supported the move.

But Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad, who was seen on TV footage talking to Rai as they entered the ceremony, suggested Sunday that the patriarch’s visit was a nod of support for the embattled regime.

“Patriarch Rai has corrected the wrong that was done in the past decades,” with the failure of previous patriarchs to come to Syria,” Meqdad said.

Devotees watched the proceedings on a giant screen outside, and Meqdad said the turnout “represents a stand in the face of the West, telling them not to interfere in our affairs and stop slaughtering and killing our people, and this is what Patriarch Rai has reiterated.”

He welcomed Rai, saying that the people of Syria and Lebanon are one and “Rai is now in his homeland and we welcome him in his country and among his people. We welcome the values, the legacy, the history and civilization he represents.”

Meqdad added that “our message to the Syrians is to go back to their Syrian patriotism, national unity, common history and values, and through national dialogue and national reconciliation we will restore the prosperity, glory, pride and victory to Syria.”

Guests with official invitations, including key Assad aide Presidential Affairs Minister Mansour Azzam and Greek Catholic Patriarch Gregorius Lahham III, passed through metal detectors amid heavy security.

Snipers were deployed on the rooftops around the church as dignitaries arrived.

During the inauguration, which was broadcast live by Syrian State TV, Yazigi said “we are certain that Syria will find a way to salvation through dialogue and a peaceful solution.”

Yazigi thanked Assad and other officials for supporting or attending the ceremony, and saluted President Michel Sleiman, saying anything that goes wrong in either Lebanon or Syria would “strike us [the church] at its core.”

“God is not pleased when he sees the society we share with our non-Christian brothers shattered over politics,” he said. “Among us and among them there are people who subscribe to fundamentalist tendencies that have nothing to do with religion.”

Yazigi succeeds Patriarch Hazim Ignatius IV, who died in December 2012.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 11, 2013, on page 1.
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